Supercharge your volunteer training

Train volunteers better

I hear a lot of grumbling about volunteer training, both from leaders of volunteers and from volunteers themselves.

Leaders are concerned volunteers won’t have the skills and/or knowledge to do their work effectively and safely. Volunteers feel the time could be better spent actually doing something.

And, of course, both of them are right – to an extent.

There seems to be four main reasons people resent volunteer training.

1. It’s too extensive or unnecessary

I was talking with the branch manager of an animal shelter. He told me he gets a lot of complaints about the amount of training required for the volunteers. “Why do I need to know all that just to take a dog for a walk?” He said is a common question.

2. Retraining or continuing education happens too often

A disgruntled health care volunteer said to me: “I only volunteer an average of an hour a week, yet I’m required to complete a training module at least once a month.”

3. Training times are inconvenient

I was told by a frustrated volunteer applicant: “The training is always on a weekday. I understand that’s because of staff hours but I can never make it, and they won’t let me volunteer without being trained.”

4. It’s too boring

A new volunteer services manager confessed to me she saw many of her trainees surreptitiously looking at their phones, yawning or giving other indications they were not really listening. The high number of errors subsequently made by the volunteers confirmed her fears.

So those are the problems. Now, what can we do to supercharge your volunteer training?

1. Make the training relevant

Tell them about situations that have come up that required a volunteer to use those skills or that knowledge to prevent or mitigate a dangerous incident. If you have trouble coming up with examples, ask yourself why you are including that information.

2. Do continuing education at well-spaced, scheduled times

Rather than try to train everyone as soon as anything changes (unless it’s a serious safety issue), save up the training and make an event of it. Most people would prefer to spend two or three hours in a useful, well-run workshop four times a year, rather than half an hour here, an hour there, at random times throughout the year.

3. Build flexibility into the training

As much as possible, use recorded webinars or other e-learning tools to allow applicants or volunteers to do the training at a time convenient for them. Most platforms allow for a quiz or other testing component to be included so that you can be confident that they understood the content. If hands-on training is necessary (ie: CPR), arrange training for different days of the week and times of the day to give as many people as possible the opportunity to attend.

4. Spice it up with interactive elements, stories and visuals

As many people who have attended lectures at university can attest, sitting and listening to someone go on and on about something – even something interesting – is a cure for insomnia. It’s hard for an audience to stay engaged when they’re not doing anything. Ask questions, do a poll, have them play a game. The more they participate, the more they will remember. And tell stories. For millennia, humans have learned by listening to stories. We are hardwired to remember them and the lessons that come with them. Use that.

It is easy to supercharge your volunteer training. It takes thought and planning, but it’s not difficult.

Make it relevant, don’t over-do it, build in flexibility and make it entertaining—four simple steps.

You can do it. Good luck.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.


Volunteers aren’t free

Support your volunteers

We fund what we value.

Your organization says it values its volunteers. But does it? Think carefully. Volunteers are not simply free labour. In fact, volunteers aren’t free at all.

To have an effective, dedicated volunteer workforce, you need to invest in them. That means training staff to manage them properly, training the volunteers in their roles and paying your volunteer engagement leader enough to attract the best talent.

According to Warren Buffet, an American financier, price is what you pay for something and value is what you get. Generally, the higher the price paid, the greater the value received.

I know, I know, the standard saying is “the best things in life are free”. Unfortunately, it’s just not true. All things have a price. Some things may not require actual money but they do have costs attached, whether in time, effort or emotion.

If you want an amazing volunteer program, you are going to have to finance it. Ensure the program is included in your organization’s budget.

According to Susan J. Ellis in her book From the Top Down, “Volunteers cannot fully and successfully contribute to an organization unless they receive visibility and management attention.” That means you need to regularly bring your volunteers and your program in front of the senior management and your board.

Then you need to educate and advocate. Explain to them volunteers aren’t free. Demonstrate the value the volunteer program brings to the organization, not just in cost savings – even though that may be the easiest thing to measure. Talk about what, in business circles, is called “goodwill”. As well as client satisfaction, brand recognition, good staff relations, systems and processes, knowledge and skills. The volunteer program, to a great extent, brings all of these to your organization. Goodwill is worth money.

The better trained your volunteers and the staff who deal with them are, the higher the level of client satisfaction and the more respected your brand will be. Therefore, volunteer and staff training need to be included in the budget.

If the leader of volunteers has a strong skill set, your systems and processes will run better, and your staff relations will be smoother. The organization needs to be willing to pay a premium to bring in highly-skilled leaders to run the program.

Push for room in the budget to cover appreciation gifts and events for your volunteers. They are part of what keep your volunteers bringing their skills and knowledge back, shift after shift.

Unfortunately, volunteers are often looked upon as cheap labour and not much else.

This attitude harms the organization and the causes it serves, without actually saving anything. They are essentially still paying for the program, but in a negative way. To take another phrase from the business world, they are paying “lost opportunity costs”. In other words, the impact and difference the organization could have made, had they invested financially in their volunteer program.

Volunteers aren’t free. They are valuable assets of your organization. As such, like any other asset, you need to be willing to invest in acquiring, training, managing and caring for them.

Like all good investments, the more you are willing to put into your volunteer program, the higher your return will be. And that can only make the world a better place.

Happy investing!

If you have concerns with your volunteer program, contact me at [email protected] and we’ll work out a solution.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

Favourite volunteer quotes

I came across a volunteer quote today that I hadn’t heard before: “Without volunteers, we’d be a nation without a soul.” Rosalyn Carter.

I love quotes about volunteers and giving. I decided today I would share with you my 10 favourites.

“Brave leaders are never silent around hard things.” Brene Brown

As leaders of volunteers, we often come across things that are hard to talk about. It’s too easy to let things slide and hope they get better on their own. They rarely do. Use Brene’s advice and speak up, no matter how uncomfortable it is.

“Volunteerism is the voice of the people in action.” Helen Dyer

How true this is. When people really care about something, they will act. Politicians should pay attention to this.

“The unselfish effort to bring cheer to others will be the beginning of a happier life for ourselves.” Helen Keller

This is something that all committed volunteers know. There is an incredible joy to be found in helping others.

“Anyone, anywhere, can make a positive difference.” Mark Sanborn

Too often we think we need to join an organization or become part of a movement to make a difference in the world. Not true. All you need to do is to act on the opportunities that are all around us.

“When the whole world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful.” Malala Yousafzai

Often, people won’t act because they feel that the problem is too big for one person to tackle. Take inspiration from Malala.

“As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands; one for helping yourself and the other for helping others.” Audrey Hepburn

What makes this volunteer quote one of my favourites is that Audrey gives equal weight to helping ourselves. We can’t care for others unless we care for ourselves, too.

“Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for kindness.” Seneca

You don’t need to go looking for people who are obviously in need. There are many people who could use your help in some way, even if they don’t specifically ask for it.

“We are here for a reason. I believe a bit of the reason is to throw little torches out to lead people through the dark.” Whoopi Goldberg

I love this one, not only for its wisdom, but also for the beautiful visual image it evokes.

“When we can’t see clearly for ourselves, we need others to speak greatness over us. People don’t need you to tell them what’s wrong with their lives; they already know. They need you to reassure them that they can still make it right.” Brianna Wiest

Our role as volunteers, and leaders of volunteers, isn’t to fix things for others. It’s to show them that, no matter what they’re going through, they can fix it themselves, and to support them while they do it.

“Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth.” Muhammed Ali

Human society developed to care for one another. It’s why we gain such satisfaction and joy from helping. Without the willingness to lift others up, society would collapse.

Quotes are tiny pieces of knowledge that, like seeds in fertile ground, sink into our minds and develop into wisdom. These volunteer quotes are some of the best “seeds” that there are. I hope you enjoy them.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.


We need boundaries in the workplace and volunteer space

Enforcing boundaries

We need to start enforcing boundaries.

I hear about it again and again. A volunteer assumes because you’re working from home, it’s OK to phone you during dinner. Someone else insists you text them about their shifts instead of emailing them like you do everyone else. A long-term volunteer regularly pulls you aside to “advise” you about how to do your work.

The result? Your days become busier, more frustrating and you start to burn out.

I fully understand that 99.99% of volunteers are thoughtful, respectful and want to make your life easier. Unfortunately, one thoughtless or disrespectful person can add a lot to both your workload and your stress levels and, if it gets around that one person can cross established boundaries, others will do so as well. It’s the same as when there’s litter on the ground other people start to think it’s okay to litter.

It’s unfair. It’s unfair to you because you are doing a bunch of unnecessary work and putting up with extra stress. It’s also unfair to the organization because it is paying you to do all this extra work and it’s unfair to the other volunteers who see one or two getting special treatment.

All because we feel uncomfortable enforcing boundaries.

OK. So, we know why enforcing boundaries is vital to our program and to our mental health but it’s hard. We want to be nice. We chose our careers because we want to help people. It’s hard to say no.

Just like with raising children, though, setting and enforcing boundaries makes everything go more smoothly. You’ve probably met parents who give in to their kids after listening to a few minutes of whining. Those kids learn quickly that rules are made to be broken.

Yes, you’ll have some push back, especially at first. But if you stay strong and consistent, the boundaries will be accepted, and most will stay within them. Those who won’t, will leave and you’ll be better off without them. Sorry, but it’s true. If a volunteer refuses to follow rules, you need to get rid of them.

Here are some tips to make things a bit easier for you.

First, be thoughtful about what boundaries you set. Whenever you make a rule or establish a policy, ask yourself how willing you are to defend it. How important is it really? If it’s a rule that anyone can ignore without consequences, don’t make it in the first place. It just encourages people to ignore rules in general.

Second, make sure that everyone understands what the boundary is, and why it’s important. If the policy is vague, or leaves some aspects open, volunteers may break it unintentionally. If they don’t know why it’s necessary, they may not give it the emphasis it deserves.

Third, take some time to come up with respectful but firm responses for when someone does go over the line. For example, if you ask people to respect your hours of work, and someone phones you outside those hours, just don’t answer the phone. If you do answer it (by accident or in case it’s an emergency), politely tell the caller to bring the issue up with you during working hours. If they keep talking, keep repeating that you will deal with it at the appropriate time. They’ll get the message.

Just don’t say you’ll make a note of it or offer any other action that would make them think ignoring the rule was in any way acceptable. Doing so will just reinforce the behaviour.

If it helps, write and practice a script that you can use whenever someone crosses the line. Knowing exactly what to say in a given situation will give you confidence and make it easier for you to stay firm.

Staying firm is key to enforcing boundaries.

I’m not saying it’s easy. But in the long run, it’s a lot easier than constantly being taken advantage of.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

More Volunteer Matters articles

About the Author

Karen Knight has provided volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations for more than 25 years.

Her professional life has spanned many industries, working in both the private and public sectors in various leadership positions.

Through her passion for making a difference in the world, she has gained decades of experience in not-for-profits as a leader and a board member.

Karen served in Toastmasters International for more than 25 years, in various roles up to district director, where she was responsible for one of the largest Toastmasters districts in the world.

She oversaw a budget of $250,000 and 300 individual clubs with more than 5,000 members. She had 20 leaders reporting directly to her and another 80 reporting to them—all volunteers.

Karen currently serves as vice-president of the board of directors for the Kamloops Therapeutic Riding Association.

After many years working and volunteering with not-for-profits, she found many leaders in the sector have difficulty with aspects of volunteer programs, whether in recruiting the right people, assigning those people to roles that both support the organization’s mission and in keeping volunteers enthusiastic.

Using hands-on experience, combined with extensive study and research, she helps solve challenges such as volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations.

Karen Knight can be contacted at [email protected], or through her website at https://karenknight.ca/.

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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